Tuesday, May 27, 2008

A Modest Proposal for Gifted Education

As school days dwindle, education stories are becoming fewer and far between. We'll go on our summer schedule here soon at Gifted Exchange, posting a bit less frequently. I thank you all for visiting me through our third school year.

In the meantime, I want to start a discussion on a new gifted program in Pittsburgh. You can read an article about it here. The reason I'm highlighting this particular one is that it gets at a lot of the current issues in gifted education (amazingly, in about 1200 words).

1) How do you identify gifted students? Pennsylvania is instituting some changes. From the article:

"'This is about a more flexible, open process,' said Jim Buckheit, executive director of the state board. 'It opens it up to students who may not test well on the IQ test.'

Current state rules say students must have an IQ score of at least 130 and do well on other measures -- grades, teacher observation, other standardized tests -- to be identified as gifted. The new standards, which after a review process could kick in for the new school year, say districts can use an IQ test or other measures."

Across the country, many districts and states are chucking the 130-and-up standard. Many educators (and others, I might add) are highly suspicious of IQ tests. But it's interesting that few educators are recommending that you use an IQ test as an initial screen, and then cut it down from that based on the idea that IQ tests might identify too many kids, because they can be gamed (at least one study found that people who play Tetris right before a spatial reasoning test do 50% better on it).

Rather, educators are proposing ditching or downplaying the IQ test standard because they want to open gifted education to kids who would not score above 130 on such a test. I suspect people want to do that because it gets at a second issue raised by the article:

2) Gifted education as a reward (as opposed to an intervention).

Here is the opening paragraph of the Pittsburgh article:

"David Badamo composes a sports fight song, goes on a scavenger hunt and uses books about sports to learn literary techniques at the Senator John Heinz History Center.

Badamo, 11, visited the center with 200 other gifted students from 20 school districts in the area."

This just has me shaking my head. You do not have to be gifted to go on a scavenger hunt. I'm guessing that all kids would enjoy a lesson about literary techniques using sports books, just as most kids would enjoy a field trip to the John Heinz History Center. If the basic way of serving gifted kids is bringing them on field trips that other kids don't get to do, who can blame people for wanting to expand the definition to encompass any kid who does well in school? It's like giving a kid an ice cream cone. We naturally want to give the treat to anyone who works hard.

But that is not the same as being gifted. Gifted kids can be lazy, can get bad grades, can act out in class and so forth. Gifted education should be an intervention for kids whose needs cannot be met in a normal classroom, not a reward for the "best" students.

3) Inadequate ability grouping.

Of course, the reason the Pittsburgh students were brought to the history center is that they needed to do something on their special "gifted day." From the article:

"Pittsburgh Public Schools is the only district in the area that sends its 2,800 gifted students to a special school one day a week. J. Kaye Cupples, executive director of student support services, said the district is thinking of ending its gifted center at Greenway School because of concerns the program might not meet students' needs the rest of the school week."

Very true. What is the point of bringing a kid to a special school for one day a week, and then leaving them in their regular classrooms the rest of the time? Unfortunately, the district's solution is not to open up the gifted school for five days a week. Instead...

"The district will experiment this fall with five schools -- Colfax, Dilworth, Fort Pitt, Grandview and Northview Heights -- where gifted children will be taught with other students.

Many districts "cluster" gifted students in a classroom with regular students.

'Research shows that they need to be with intellectual peers a good part of the day to share ideas and to push each other to excel,' said Cathy Ekis, the elementary gifted coordinator at Penn Hills.

The youngsters might also be pulled out of their regular classrooms and be taught by special teachers elsewhere in their school."

In other words, we're going from one day a week of busing to a central location to maybe a daily pull-out, with a few gifted kids clustered in an age-level classroom.

This is not necessarily going to be an improvement, but looks more palatable to people who don't like gifted education. It also maintains an allegiance to the "kids should be with their grade level" mentality.

Which leads me to my modest proposal for setting up a system of gifted education. After spending years reading through the literature, and various articles like this, I have a few ideas on best practices in gifted education:

1. Don't chuck IQ tests or out-of-level tests. Yes, these may miss kids who don't do well on tests, so it's worth having some alternative screen (like a portfolio). But the point should not be to expand the definition of gifted. This is an educational intervention for kids whose needs cannot be met in a regular classroom. If a kid who is working just slightly above grade level is getting bored in a regular classroom, it's because you've got a lousy teacher. Deal with that problem.

2. Gifted education should not look like a reward. In smaller districts, it should look like one thing: acceleration. You take a lot of politics and mystique out of the gifted label if kids who get it don't suddenly get to go on fun field trips. Instead, they go (for example) three grade levels up for math, do an independent study in English, sit in on a community college history course, and take an online science course in the library.

3. If you're going to do ability grouping, really do it. Larger districts may have enough highly gifted students that it becomes more economical to create self-contained gifted classes or schools. That's a fine idea -- but don't just bus the kids there once a week. Don't just do two afternoons a week of pull-out. Self-contain them the whole time. And combine these programs across grades. Gifted fourth graders have no more in common with each other than they do with gifted third or fifth graders. Let the kids work at their own pace while interacting with their intellectual peers. All told, that might be even more fun than composing a fight song and going to a history museum.

Tongue-in-cheek here, I also have a modest proposal for articles about gifted education. Attention writers: please stop including the "we're just normal kids" line. Everyone does it. Sigh. Here's the Pittsburgh one:

"Most people think we're different because they think we're brainiacs," said Badamo, a fifth-grader at Ross Elementary School in the North Hills School District. "I don't think we're different at all. We do a lot more advanced work. We still like to do sports and the things other kids like to do."


Catana said...

They keep trying and they keep getting it wrong. First distinguish between the academically gifted and the intellectually gifted. Two different mentalities; two different sets of problems, regardless of test scores. Every time I see that "We're just normal kids, like everybody else," I know it's coming from either an academically gifted student or an intellectually gifted one who is doing their level best to conceal or downplay their abilities.

McSwain said...

The main problem I have with IQ tests as "the screener" is that the group tests often used (such as the 2nd grade OLSAT-7) are sometimes flawed, and that profoundly gifted kids sometimes don't perform well on them.

Re. gifted kids being "normal"? Ha! I wish with all my heart that someone would have had the sense to tell me that I was NOT normal, that my brain worked differently than others, back when I was a highly gifted student. I had to start teaching gifted education as an adult before I understood why I felt (and still feel) different.

Anonymous said...

The tongue-in-cheekc remark made m,e laugh..It's really a (gifted) cliche....like letting the Afo-American movie character die fist..

'He just runs arouns an climbs in trees, just like any other seven-year-old'

'they like pancakes and ice, just like any other kid..

And so forth..

Anonymous said...

Laura, I went through the Allentown School District's gifted program in the 1980s -- fulltime academic tracking for gifted. While the grouping may have been helpful, I have to tell you, it still really doesn't work. And it doesn't work because too few teachers can keep up with the kids. Until public schools, and K12 in general, are ready to deal with the fact that bright kids need bright teachers who know their stuff inside & out (and that bright teachers will demand considerably more intellectual freedom than what's usually on offer), I think we're pretty much spitting in the wind.

I left after 10th grade and went to college. The way my dad tells it, I'd started asking teachers & the principal abrupt questions like, "Is the objective to learn vocabulary or to memorize a list of words?", and was forgetting to do things like not smile at the Kafka moments, like when the principal demanded I prove I'd known things before they were assigned. At which point my dad knew I was headed for trouble. He and a guidance counselor hustled me out of there as fast as they could. I was more than happy to go.

Bobbi said...

It's rather curious to me that Allentown School District has so many students classified as gifted when the statewide average is only %4.
In one middle school there are two full classrooms of "gifted" kids in the sixth grade.
That's absurd.
Seems the district has found a way to cash in on Special Education funding by loosening the standards that determine which students are actually gifted.